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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 106

Senator CARR (4:20 PM) —The Employment, Workplace Relations and Education References Committee’s interim report on Indigenous education funding, presented to the Senate this afternoon, is an appeal—an appeal by the committee to the government to reconsider what is plainly and simply a bureaucratic bungle. This is not a document that seeks to re-evaluate the fundamentals of the program; that will presumably be done in the final report. This is an appeal to the government to consider the consequences for thousands and thousands of Aboriginal students in this country who are missing out because of the incompetence of this government. We have a situation in the Northern Territory about which, as a result of the Senate committee’s visit, we have been able to gather information first hand highlighting that the administrative arrangements embarked upon by the government are seriously hurting thousands of citizens of this country. What is the government’s response? It is to try to dismiss it by blaming the Territory government and by trying to pretend it is not happening. There can be no excuse whatsoever for this.

There are thousands and thousands of citizens in this country who are being seriously disadvantaged because this government and the Commonwealth Public Service cannot get their act together. We are now eight weeks into a school year and basic services have not been provided. It is not a result of the funding failure of this parliament or the government’s failure to get legislation through; it is a direct result of a program wholly administered by the Commonwealth not being able to deliver support to parent committees. That is a pretty basic problem particularly at a time when the government says that its entire Indigenous affairs program is being redirected to provide new channels of communication with Aboriginal communities and that it wants to go directly to communities. The government wants to bypass representative structures and the arrangements that have been in place for some time and talk directly to family groups and communities. But the very instrument in education that allows that to happen—parent committees—is being removed. That is the first fundamental problem.

The second problem arises as a result of the failure of this government to make sure that money goes from Canberra to school communities in remote parts of this continent. Basic equipment, food, transport and dental care programs are not being provided because of the failure of the Australian Public Service to get the money from here to the backblocks of the Northern Territory. These are basic matters which the minister ought to directly intervene in. There is no excuse for this—none whatsoever.

The government says that it is down to the Territory bureaucrats, but the Commonwealth did not seek to seriously engage those bureaucrats until the last week of January this year—that was the first time there was a bilateral meeting in Queensland with the officers. If it were fair dinkum about making sure these programs actually worked, it would have set this up last year. The announcement of the policy was in the middle of last year, but the government does not seek to implement that policy until January this year. As a former schoolteacher I can tell you that it takes a bit to organise a school year and you do not try to get things going when the teachers are on the doorstep and the kids are lined up. If you do that you will certainly find that eight weeks into the school term basic facilities are not being provided.

I ask you: in what other community or school in the Commonwealth would this be tolerated? Where else would it happen? I can tell you that it would not be in the middle of Melbourne or Sydney. This would be totally unacceptable. It would be on the front page of every newspaper. But in the Northern Territory it gets dismissed. The Northern Territory News does not seem to be much interested. I can understand that, perhaps, given the nature of the Northern Territory News. I am told that a big problem in the Northern Territory is that it is too hot for fires, so the paper is absolutely useless for anything, not even for lighting fires!

We managed to get a bit of the message across the radio and the TV. But what do we get from the government? We get a response that says, ‘This is really someone else’s problem.’ Senator Tierney—and this is probably his last effort here and the last time he will have to carry the can for the government—puts in a report that says that the real gain here is to mainstream these programs. What are we told about the ATSIC programs? We are told that there will be protection for specific programs. We are told that there will be a guarantee that Indigenous programs will continue, but that is not what the government say in this report. The government say that, if they are successful, they will mainstream them. If ever there was a case for special programs, it is in education. But that is not what this government now say. They say, ‘If you’re successful, we’ll mainstream the program. We’ll cater for failure.’ Can you just imagine running our Olympics program that way? Can you imagine any sports program anywhere saying, ‘We’ll only provide money to people who don’t measure up’? That is what the government are saying in education.

We all know the statistics. We know that, since the government changed the scheme within higher education, the number of Indigenous people starting university has continued to decline. It has not recovered since then. We know the score with regard to schools. The situation is very clear: 33 per cent of Indigenous students were not meeting the reading benchmarks and 37 per cent of Indigenous students were not meeting the numeracy benchmarks. This compares with 10 per cent for the rest of the population. We know that, with regard to retention rates at secondary school, 38 per cent of Indigenous students who commence secondary school complete year 12; whereas for the rest of the country it is 76 per cent—despite the activities of the current Prime Minister, trying to get people out of school early. There is a fundamental inequality. There is a huge equity gap in this country. And what is the government’s response? It is to ensure that there are changes in Indigenous education programs which will let that gap grow still further. That is totally unacceptable.

If we say that in this country the best way to learn is to go to school—and we say that that is the fundamental principle—then all the programs that are aimed at encouraging and providing incentives for people to go to school ought to be protected and advanced. If you are providing assistance with transport, parent involvement, food, dental and nursing programs, and all these other things, these are incentives for people to go to school. You should not be taking them away, and that is precisely what is happening at the moment.

We have a basic problem. Schools at Moulden Park—which I visited with Senator Crossin and others—Millingimbi and Elcho Island are highly successful and are doing a hell of a good job, despite extraordinary adversity. They are having the ground cut out from underneath them by the policies of this government. It seems to me that not even this minister would want to deliberately see that sort of resource taken away, and that is why we are making this appeal. There ought to be an intervention. There ought to be a mechanism to ensure that funding is made available directly to children, to make sure they get the benefits that money can bring.

The government say, ‘We don’t run schools,’ but they are only too happy to intervene with flagpoles and with literacy and numeracy programs and to tell the states that they are now going to set national curricula. They are also only too happy to tell the states about values education. Well, a fundamental values education of a democracy is that everyone gets a fair go—but they are not prepared to intervene on that score. What we have here is a clear situation where, because of bureaucratic bungling, thousands and thousands of citizens in this country are missing out.

The basic statistics are very clear. With regard to the in-class tuition program for the Northern Territory, the Commonwealth is reducing funding from $5 million to $3.71 million. It is reducing the number of students it is servicing from 3,800 to 1,666. That is a program that is administered through the states. The Commonwealth is taking the view that this program is supplementary and it does not need to intervene. That is wrong. That position is just wrong. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.